By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
Following the two day sympathy warning strike by the Nigeria Labour Congresses, NLC, the Trade Union Congress, TUC, and other affiliate unions and Civil Society organisations, CSO, over the lingering strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), which has been going on for more than five months, the federal government is under pressure to avoid a nation wide shutdown.
This arises from the two week ultimatum handed down by the NLC for government to resolve the impasse with ASUU to reopen public universities or face an indefinite general strike. Competent sources hinted this medium that the challenge for government is funding and this makes it extremely unlikely that anything will be done to avert the strike.
Dwindling government revenue has become a serious issue with the minister of finance, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, recently, admitting that government is broke as debt service has surpassed revenue with fuel subsidy projected to reach about N7 trillion in 2023.
With this parlous financial situation,
government is borrowing to pay salaries and and it would be difficult to find the N200 billion funding for ASUU. Already, a new twist is being added to the knotty issue as ASUU has expressed vehement opposition to an envisaged proposal by government to raise tuition fees to supplement whatever it can provide to meet the demand.
As it stands now, governor has found itself between the rock and the hard, and the options are few and limited. This unending strike action has raised concern levels among stakeholders, parents and even the National Association of Nigerians Students, NANS, among others.
Last week, precisely on July 26-27, the NLC, and about 57 affiliate unions made good their threats to embark on warning protests in solidarity with ASUU. Across the country, the members of the labour unions in large numbers staged solidarity protests, chanting protest songs of Fela and African China, in major cities.
In Lagos, the massive turnouts converged in Ikeja roundabout, where they marched along the Awolowo road, down to Allen Junction, to Alausa. At Allen Junction, the protesters were addressed by constitutional lawyer, Femi Falana, who railed against the President Buhari administration .
In Abuja, there were massive turnouts led by comrades Shehu Sani and Auwal Rafsanjani and other rights activists. The labour leaders threatened to unleash Sri Lankan experience should the president fail to address the ASUU debacle within three weeks.
The Association of Nigeria Aviation Professionals (ANAP) called on federal government to end the strike following warning protests by the labour. ANAP in a statement by its general secretary, Comrade Abdulrasaq Saidu, called on President Mohammadu Buhari to end the strike without further delay.
Comrade Saidu had earlier stated that the protracted strike had led to an unprecedented upsurge in social vices by students and in the process, led to a ridiculing of Nigeria’s educational system, making it a laughing stock.
“ASUU, NASU, SAUTHRIAI, NAAT had been on strike for more than four months due to the apparent failure of government to sign the re-negotiated 2009 agreement with ASUU, failure to honour the terms reached at in the May 2022 MoU signed with ASUU, and habitual failure of government to respect collective bargaining agreements willingly signed with labour unions.
“Our children are using eight years to read courses of four years with resources being wasted. We cannot continue this way.”
On the same note NUBIFIE in a release by its national president, Anthony Abakpa, and Mohammed Sheikh, general secretary, said “if, after the two days warning protests by NLC on this issue nothing is done, the union will have no other option than to call out all our members in banks, insurance and other financial institutions in solidarity with ASUU.”
President of NUPENG, Williams Akporeha, and the General Secretary, Afolabi Olawale, said the strikes by ASUU, Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) had paralysed universities for months.
The union asked the federal government to “immediately address and resolve all demands of ASUU, NASU and SSANU without any further delay to avert national solidarity actions from our members across the country.
Professor Adeagbo Moritiwon, a political scientist said that the federal government has repeatedly proven that it has trust deficit in abundance.
He said that after over seven years in the saddle, “we have seen the president issuing these ultimatums and “marching orders” and holding numerous “emergency meetings” with security and military chiefs over our security woes which continue to worsen.
“The president’s “marching orders” are now seen as wands that produce no magic. So giving marching order to his ministers to settle ASUU strike will not come as a surprise, it will come to nothing.”
ASUU had repeatedly served notice that it would not accept Ngige’s presence on the negotiation table. To this effect, Buhari ordered Ngige to withdraw and let Adamu head the effort. Many commentators have said the attitude of the ruling class to education is because their children are schooling abroad.
John Ameh, a 300 level microbiology student of University of Jos told Business Hallmark that “I have been idle for five months, and yet the leadership of the country are not bothered. This shows the calibre of the people running the country. I can’t blame them, their cold attitude might be because their children are schooling in universities abroad.”
When he was confronted in his office with this fact that the government lackadaisical attitude towards the strike might be because their children school abroad, by the President of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, Mr. Sunday Asefon, in February 2022, the Minister of Labour angrily walked out.
“The final buck on this ASUU strike is on Buhari’s table. It is his government. We expect him to lead from the front and solve this problem once and for all”, said Deji Atteh, a parent who has two children in the University.
Meanwhile, Business Hallmark gathered that the federal government efforts to create a wedge in ASUU has not yielded good results.
Though a breakaway faction of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) – Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA), has dissociated itself from the ongoing strike in Nigerian universities, analysts said their actions had failed to stop NLC strike, neither did the renegade alternative union gather any public sympathy.
In a press release authenticated by its national coordinator, ‘Niyi Sunmonu, and the national publicity secretary, Ernest Nwoke, CONUA noted that it is not part of its decision to embark on the ongoing strike by ASUU.
The release read in part: “The Congress of University Academics (CONUA) would like to seize this opportunity to announce its independence as a union of academic staff in Nigeria’s public universities.
“Being a separate and independent union, it has never been part of the decision to embark on the industrial action which has paralysed academic activities in our universities for five months now”.
CONUA said it is of the view that strikes will have a negative effect on the Nigerian university system. It added that the negative effects of the strikes have always been greater than their positive outcomes.
“Our strongly-held view is that strikes wreak great havoc on the university system, and the concessions that are earned after every strike, over the decades, have amounted to pyrrhic victories when weighed against the systematic destruction of the local and global image of university education in Nigeria.
Our preferred alternatives to strikes in resolving industrial disputes, therefore, include constructive engagement and constant dialogue with all stakeholders.
“As CONUA, we are of the strong belief that strikes should never be a strategy of first recourse. Their deployment should be contemplated only when all other options have failed, and they should not appear to be motivated by a desire to cause maximum damage.”
The union noted that its members continued with academic activities at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife and Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma after the strike declared by ASUU.
When the federal government knew that the attempt to break the ranks of ASUU was not yielding needed results it resorted to continue the negotiation but ASUU is not impressed.
In view of this, two weeks ago, President Buhari ordered Chris Ngige, the Minister of Labour who has been leading the negotiations with ASUU to step down from ongoing negotiation with the body .
ASUU has on its part repeatedly blamed Ngige for allegedly constituting clog in the wheel of the progress of the negotiation towards addressing the crisis.
Buhari, gave the directive during a briefing by the heads of the various concerned ministries, departments and agencies of government penultimate Tuesday in Abuja.
He also agreed to the suggestion by the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, to take over the negotiations.
Adamu was said to have cleared the air on the protracted crisis, as he made it known to the gathering the reason behind his prolonged silence on the matter, adding that his labour and employment counterpart had since 2016 argued “that only the labour ministry has the mandate to negotiate with striking workers unions in Nigeria.”
ASUU has also blamed Ngige for allegedly complicating the crisis and making resolution difficult.
Business Hallmark learnt that an earlier reports that President Buhari ordered the education minister to address the ASUU crisis within two weeks is inaccurate.
According to a source familiar with the matter who spoke with Business Hallmark “The President never directed the education minister to end the strike in two or three weeks. It was the minister himself who hinted of a possibility of an end to the crisis between two and three weeks.
“But the education minister said he distanced himself from the negotiations following the position taken sometime in 2016 or thereabouts when a similar issue arose and the labour minister said it was his duty to take over negotiation and quoted some ILO provisions.”
It was learnt that Adamu expressed surprise that when his labour counterpart made the argument at a cabinet meeting at the time, none of the cabinet members contradicted him and that the President maintained silence.
“So the education minister saw the President’s silence as an approval of Ngige’s position at the time,” the source added.
Commenting on the matter, Professor Adeagbo Moritiwon, a political scientist said “the long-standing crisis between ASUU and the federal government would have been resolved but for the arrogance and lackadaisical attitude of Ngige and the President’s disregard for education.”
He warned that as long as Ngige is in charge of the negotiations the crisis will continue.
Dr. Olufemi Omoyele, director of Entrepreneurship at Redeemers University told Business Hallmark that “the demands of ASUU is legitimate, it is to save the country’s tertiary education from collapse but because our elites in power do not have a dog in the fight they are unconcerned. Their children are schooling overseas”.
ASUU has been on strike since February to protest the federal government’s refusal to fulfill the agreements with the union since 2009.
Parts of the demand include the replacement of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS) with the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS); the release of the reports of visitation panels to federal universities; and improved funding for the revitalisation of public universities and others.
Meanwhile, ASUU last week said only the signing and implementation of the renegotiated 2009 Agreement will end the five months impasse. In a statement on Sunday ASUU stated that the signing and implementation of a renegotiated 2009 agreement will end the over five months strike.
The Union said that her members have sacrificed so much for their own welfare lamenting that the Federal Government owes their members over nine years of allowances.
ASUU Chairman, University of Ibadan chapter, Professor Ayo Akinwole made this known in Ibadan, saying that Nigerians should not see the strike as an ASUU thing but as a fight all Nigerians must own to have a future of quality education for their children.
He said that current administration has shown immense capacity to abuse trust as the Memorandum of Understanding and Memorandum of Action signed with the government were not honoured.
According to him, Nigeria is in the hands of incompetent people due to the collective negligence of Nigerians, adding that “Until we rise above sentiments to get responsible and responsive people who will be accountable to Nigerians into public offices, the cycles of strikes will not end.